polar bear Tatqiq


Polar Bears: Exam for Tatqiq

Tatqiq enjoys snow day earlier this month.

Tatqiq enjoys snow day earlier this month.

Once a year, our polar bear Tatqiq gets an exam. The main purpose is to implant her birth control but also to get a good look at her teeth, body condition, and any other routine items that are helpful in keeping her healthy. February 20 was her exam day.

If you have ever taken your pet to the veterinary office for a procedure that requires anesthesia, you know that fasting is required. In preparation for this, Tatqiq did not have any food overnight and instead was given all food during the day so by evening she had her full amount. First thing in the morning we remove water, so that in the event she feels nauseous, she won’t have anything that she might aspirate—all standard procedures. The hard part for keepers is getting her to be all right with no breakfast! Whether she knew it was for her own good or not, she was a complete angel while Kalluk and Chinook had breakfast, and we were able to go about the morning not feeling completely guilty.

Once the veterinary staff arrived, Tatqiq was sedated by a dart injection. We stay with her throughout, reassuring her (and maybe ourselves, too). Once the anesthetic begins to take effect, Tatqiq comes over to where we are and lays down. It is all very nice and peaceful and without any anxiety for her. The entire procedure lasted just over an hour and a half. During that time her teeth were found to be in great shape, radiographs also confirmed that, blood was taken for routine analysis, joints were moved, our nutritionists felt all over her body to be sure she was in top body condition—not too thin, not too fat, but just right! And, of course, the tiny birth control device was implanted under her skin just between the shoulders.

We are always asked if we touch the polar bears. While Tatqiq was sedated, we sat with her and talked with her and, yes, gently touched her to give any comfort she might feel while the exam went on. Because she is beginning her annual molt, we could feel some of the new growth of fur; it was so soft. But the most beautiful sight was of the new individual pieces of fur glistening like diamonds in between the fur that she will eventually shed. We were truly in awe of how gorgeous each individual hair was.

We stayed with Tatqiq until she was awake enough to have a nice full dinner and then cuddle up in the giant hay bed we had prepared for her. Then our day ended, and she spent the night sleeping. First thing Thursday morning our girl greeted us and patiently waited while her breakfast was prepared and, yes, served first! She joined her brother Kalluk on exhibit first with a very nice neck-biting greeting, and then Chinook came over for the same.

For those who question if Chinook likes Tatqiq, here’s something to ponder: Chinook prefers to sleep outside on the beach or in the mulch if the weather is dry and only comes inside if it is raining. Last night, Chinook chose to sleep inside in the room across the hall from where Tatqiq was and was the first to check on her when we turned the lights on this morning. We‘d like to think she was concerned about her friend. What do you think?

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Chinook and Her Beauty Mark.


Polar Bear Hopes

High hopes for Chinook!

Chinook gave birth to two beautiful, fuzzy white cubs. Beep, beep, beep. . .I turned the alarm clock off. Yes, it was a dream, right? Or maybe a premonition? It seemed so real! As soon as I arrived at the polar bear building at the San Diego Zoo, Chinook came out of her bed to say good morning, so I asked her, “Are you really going to have two?” She simply winked at me; if she does know, she’s keeping us all in suspense. Every week during her ultrasound exams we are so hopeful of finding just a little hint of what may be to come. We realize what an incredible task this is to find something so small in such a large belly!

Chinook’s behavior is still very consistent with a pregnant polar bear. A few weeks ago we stopped letting her out on exhibit with Kalluk and Tatqiq, since she seemed to be less tolerant of their presence. This week we stopped having Chinook on exhibit at all or letting Kalluk and Tatqiq into Chinook’s side of the bedroom area and yard. We will continue this for the next few months until we know for sure if our Chinook will be joined by one or two little ones. We are now in the expected due date range if Chinook is pregnant: October 9 to December 15. Believe me, we are all so hopeful and excited!

Our other two polar bears, Kalluk and Tatqiq, are having a great time being full-time ambassadors. With autumn arriving, it seems they spend more time in the pool. Every day the brother-and-sister pair are enjoying roughhousing together. They are great playmates and always play to each other’s level, never getting too rough. It is so nice to see that their bond has stayed so strong.

This week they welcomed keeper Hali O’Connor back from her great adventure up north at Keeper Leadership Camp, sponsored by Polar Bears International, in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. (see Hali’s most recent post, More Arctic Ambassador Adventures) and met this year’s student ambassador, Rachel. She will be up in Churchill this week learning all about polar bears and what we need to do to help slow the process of our warming planet, and, in turn, prevent the complete loss of polar bear habitat. (See Rachel’s post, Countdown to the Arctic.)

Being an Arctic ambassador sometimes seems a daunting task: how to inspire behavior change when it often feels so doom and gloom? It is a global issue and must start with individuals. We’ve faced other environmental problems and won. Remember the hole in the ozone? As individuals, we worked to find the cause, develop solutions, and act as a global community. The unprecedented international action to the hole in the ozone, which was first seen 25 years ago, has paid off. Scientists are now predicting a rebound and that by 2080 the global ozone will return to 1950s’ levels. We now all need to return to action to have the same impact to slow, stop, and reverse the rate of our planet’s warming. After all, we want Chinook’s cubs to know we are doing everything we can to save the Arctic for their wild cousins so they, too, will be Arctic Ambassadors.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: A Quiet Fall?


Polar Bears: Who is Who?


Having a tough time telling “who’s who” on the camera? Here are a few helpful identifiers:

First, now that breeding season is over, if you see two bears together most likely it is our siblings Kalluk and Tatqiq. They truly enjoy each other for playing and often times sleep in close proximity, especially on our beach! Chinook, it seems, is not joining the two this year for the summer frolic season. Instead, she is content with watching them and resting by a favorite pile of carrots. She also loves to sleep to the right side of the waterfall or out on the point.

We maintain a variable schedule of which bear is on exhibit when, but for the most part, Kalluk and Tatqiq are on exhibit more often in the evenings, and Chinook is in the bedrooms and polar bear park. This is intentional because she does seem to enjoy this area, and if she is pregnant, this will be where she will live for up to six months and introduce her cubs to the great world of grass, dirt, and swimming!

Individually, Chinook is the most round of our three. Her arms look very solid, as does every part of her. When polar bears put on weight, it first goes on their belly, then their bum, then distributes over the rest of their body. The bear you see with thick arms, neck and legs, rounder profile, and in the close-up has a beauty mark under her left eye, is Chinook! Again, her weight gain is intentional in preparation that she will be denning up this fall. We want to be sure she has plenty of energy to support any time she might spend fasting during the denning period. Female polar bears in the Arctic regularly go without food for four months while in their dens; due to the loss of sea ice, this time in now increasing to as much as nine months. This is why we are seeing smaller litters and an increase in the mortality of cubs in the wild.

Kalluk and Tatqiq are almost mirror images of each other except, of course, that Kalluk is twice the size of Tatqiq! They both have more slender appearances and are very tall looking. Actually, we suspect Kalluk may well be the tallest male polar bear in any zoo. We measured him standing up, and he is over 10 feet (3 meters) tall! Kalluk is the “basketball player”; he throws everything and has definitely learned where he can throw toys and have them come back to him. Tatqiq tends to wrestle with toys. When you see two bears wrestling, Tatqiq stands fully up but Kalluk only half way; this is so he and Tatqiq are the same height. Also, don’t worry if you see them dragging each other around by their head or ears; they’ve done this game since they were six-month-old cubs!

As we all enjoy our summer weather, I hope we are all still thinking about conserving energy. Have you raised the temperature on your thermostat for less air conditioner use? Evening walks are a great, cool time to get to know your neighborhood and turn off the computer and TV! We are now seeing the lowest recorded ice amount in the Arctic for the month of June. The rate of melting sea ice is at a historic record. Let’s do a bit more to slow this rate of warming. Check out our Polar Bear Plunge Web site for more ideas!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: A New Look.


Polar Bears: Crash, Slurp, and Shadow

Kalluk, left, and Chinook

Could it be we are nearing the end of our fantastic remodel of the Conrad Prebys Polar Bear Plunge at the San Diego Zoo? Anyone who has remodeled their home knows the joys and dilemmas that improvement brings. Most of the work that impacted our bears was completed last fall with the building of our management yard and the experience wall.

The bears love the wall area, and with all the great rain we’ve had, the yard is thick with green grass. In fact, we’ve begun calling the yard Polar Bear Park! We did, however, want to do some remodeling in the exhibit: remove some of the deadwood to make viewing easier. We set about renting a huge crane to come and lift the wood out and move the huge root balls, but…

The project started when we brought all three bears in for the afternoon and night while we cut through all the metal thread that held everything together, cut the wood into smaller, more manageable pieces, and basically prepared all for fast work the next morning. Everything needed to be done by 9 a.m. so the crane would not block the road.

We were all in an hour early; we made sure the bears were all fed and happy with new beds or enrichment and then set up for the crane. The crane arrived early but, OH NO! The hydraulic line broke! The crane was out of commission. Now what? We can’t let the bears on exhibit—it was too dangerous with all the loose logs. In steps teamwork!

One of our animal care managers got a bobcat tractor while ropes, chains, pry bars, and determination were gathered. For the next two hours logs were pulled off and out with loud crashes and moved into better positions. The polar bears’ “living room” took on a whole new look. By 9 a.m. we had everything done and secure so our trio could come out and assess our work. We expected lots of curiosity from them, but they took a look, a sniff, and went off to their carrot piles! We will be doing a bit more work before the grand re-opening on March 26, including removing one more root ball and filling part of the center shelter area with sand for another sleeping area.

There is also a return of that wonderful “sllluuurrrrrrpppppp” sound every day from Kalluk. What does this mean? As we are beginning to understand, scent is an integral part of polar bear communication. Just as breeding season begins, Kalluk busies himself with smelling everywhere Chinook has stepped. He flattens his nose and mouth to the floor and slurp-inhales with all he’s got to assess where Chinook may be in her approach to breeding season. We now are seeing him less and less away from her as he has become her shadow. This year, he seems to be less anxious about it, perhaps after last year he has gained some maturity and confidence. In the past few days we have begun to see Chinook become more flirtatious with him, and she often adds a nice face rub to her greetings to him. She rarely goes anywhere now without her 1,000-pound shadow!

Tatqiq is beginning to be an outcast, but she also seems to have gained some confidence. She is not backing down from Chinook but instead stands in place and offers behaviors that neutralize Chinook’s advances. Every day we do offer all our bears the opportunity to show us what they need, and so far everyone still wants to be together. We are really happy that when it comes time to give someone a break, they get to spend it in the new Polar Bear Park!

When you come to visit after re-opening on March 26, you will be able to see through the exhibit and look on the hill and see our bears in their lush, green park.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Oh So Busy.

Watch video of the new statues and interactive elements being moved into place at Polar Bear Plunge.


Polar Bear Tatqiq: Arctic Ambassador!

Tatqiq investigates the new management yard at Polar Bear Plunge.

Tatqiq investigates the new management yard at Polar Bear Plunge.

As fall has come, so has quiet to the Conrad Prebys Polar Bear Plunge. The management yard is being well used by Chinook. She certainly has her routine down: greet Tatqiq and Kalluk over the moat, find treats, eat treats, dip in pool, roll in dirt, completely cover entire body except for the white fur around eyes, go inside and see what my keeper is up to. Oh, too bad the nice clean bedrooms are now covered with muddy paw prints! Chinook really has perfected the art of the dirt roll! Still no confirmation of pregnancy, but also no behavioral change to indicate she is not pregnant. Our fingers are still tightly crossed.

Many of you have noticed the new wall by the beach. This is the new “Guest Experience Wall” that will be unveiled next year when the new interpretive area opens. However, Tatqiq has ignored all memos saying that this will happen next year. She has installed herself as the overseer of all guest greetings and is chief model for all polar bear close-up photography. In brief, she is THE Arctic Ambassador, and she is holding court every day as though she is the queen of the beach, no longer the princess! What an incredible opportunity now to have only three inches of glass separate you from a polar bear so willing to pose for your photos! More surprises are ahead when we do officially open the wall in March.

Kalluk has also enjoyed having the entire beach area back. Every night he chooses between sleeping on what is left of his kiddie pool or building a soft, cozy sand bed. He does seem to enjoy watching the show Tatqiq puts on with the guests and will join from time to time. He also spends time watching Chinook next door in the yard. I’m not sure what he is thinking. Perhaps he, too, is wondering if cubs are on the way. If not, we expect to begin seeing changes in him by the end of December as his hormones prepare him for the next breeding season.

For me, I am in Canada, working with our conservation partner, Polar Bears International, and spending time with the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba. This will be my ninth fall with our incredible furry ice bears. Even in such a short time I have seen great changes in the polar bears due to the change in ice. Please take the time to read our student Arctic Ambassador Daniel Straub’s impressions of his time with the bears (see post Northern Lights Perfect Backdrop for Polar Bears) and the great information shared by Dr. Ron Swaisgood of his first adventure to Churchill (see post Hope for Polar Bears). With how fast the Arctic is changing, anyone lucky enough to experience this disappearing land of ice must be an ambassador to inspire others, who can’t come north, to care enough to make the changes to save this beautiful habitat and the animals and people who live here. Tatqiq is a great model as an Arctic Ambassador; she’d love to share the role with you!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Sugar Bears!

Long ago my dad would take me early in the morning to the donut shop to get the freshest donuts. I remember how beautiful the donuts were when right out of the fryer the baker rolled them in granulated sugar and they just sparkled in the lights of the donut shop! Last Tuesday, May 12, we put over 100 bags of playground sand on the beach for the San Diego Zoo’s polar bears. And by Tuesday afternoon I had three beautiful “sugar donuts” sleeping on exhibit!

The bears were so excited to see and smell the sand. So after quick swims they rolled themselves in the beautiful white crystals. Both Chinook and Tatqiq kept their black noses clean, but our boy Kalluk had a sparkling nose! I think I love these “sugar donuts” even better!



So many of you have commented on the beautiful white bear you see on the Polar Cam. Are you ready for this? That is our “pigpen” Chinook! She has never looked so beautiful! She has completely finished her molt and seems to be glowing! She was very happy the other day, as well, when the new essential oils from our enrichment wish list came in. Once again she anointed herself with her favorite, “Roman chamomile.” Still no answers on if we’ll see cubs this fall, but we are getting ready. Then den is almost complete and we’re still working out the configuration to hopefully have a den camera that can be shown on the Zoo’s Web site.

Kalluk is definitely out of his breeding daze. I’m sure you’ve seen how much more time he now spends playing and swimming. Tatqiq is ecstatic to have her play buddy back! We are still keeping a variable schedule on all three bears. You may see any combination of one, two, or three out!

I see many of you are asking about what the bears like for beds. On exhibit we have the fresh sand, mulch piles, and burlap coffee bags (which they love). Palm fronds are always a big hit whenever we can get them. In their bedrooms, we can use other items without worrying about clogging up the filtration. The bears do love Bermuda hay, pine needles, mulch, rubber stall mats, and cardboard boxes! All three of them are very good at making their beds using whatever we give them. But Kalluk does seem to take great care in his creations, spending much time moving things around so they are just right. He also uses many of the toys as pillows. It’s pretty funny watching a 1,000-pound boy being so particular about his bed!

In the Arctic, polar bears make beds as well. If the snow is deep enough, they’ll break through the icy crust and dig down to get shelter from the wind. They also dig into kelp beds along the coast. It’s a great soft bed that’s good to eat as well! A few years ago, a big male bear broke into the cardboard bin at the town recycle center in Canada and made himself a bed. He apparently was in there for several days before anyone noticed. Keep recycling. . .it’s good for polar bears in many ways!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.